This month I have the privilege of talking to Sam J. Miller about his story “The Beasts We Want to Be” – a story close to my own heart, as it is set in revolution-era Russia. As a speaker and sometime translator of Russian, and a dilettante scholar of Soviet history and ideology (one of the topics of my master’s dissertation at the University of London) I was immediately drawn to the story, and I’m very happy to share our conversation about it with you here at Better Dreaming.
RN: First, Sam, thank you so much for agreeing to do this, and supporting this still fledgling effort to deepen the discourse in science fiction. This story opens so many avenues for exploration. Let’s jump right in, with the protagonist’s self-description:
“I was an illiterate bloodthirsty street urchin, the son of steel workers who starved to death in the famine of 1910. Plucked out of the orphanage by the Ministry of Human Engineering, I was reconditioned into a species of man they said was “slightly smarter than a dog but just as vicious.”
I love this self-description of the story’s protagonist, Nikolai. It seems to me to be, first, a deadly accurate description of who many of the shock troops of the Bolshevik revolution were – the ones, at least, who had the credentials necessary to survive the initial rounds of terror and purges. I also wonder, though, if there isn’t a reference implied here to Bulgakov’s novella “A Dog’s Heart” (the translation I prefer of that title).
Like that story, this one is a dark piece of satire (it is more than satire, I am not trying to encapsulate it, as sometimes is done, with that word.) Can you tell me a bit about your inspiration for this story, and what drew you to the place-time of 1924 and the upheavals of revolutionary Russia?
SJM: I wasn’t conscious of the “Dog’s Heart” influence but I am sure it’s there - I was a Russian Lit major, after all, and got my Bulgakov with my alma mater’s milk, as it were.
I wrote this story at Clarion, and more than one of my classmates came away from the first draft convinced that the narrator was in fact a dog. The line you quoted was originally “I was reconditioned into a slightly-smarter sort of dog, still just as vicious.” But this is science fiction, after all, and as per your next question - you gotta be careful with your metaphors, as they’ll often be taken literally. So, yeah - the doggish narrative DNA asserted itself. It required careful domestication.
I’ve always been obsessed with Soviet history. Like many angry punk rock teenagers, I became a communist (my father’s struggling butcher shop got put out of business when Wal-Mart came to town, so I got a crash course in the monstrousness of global capitalism and corporate supremacy), and like many angry lefties I wanted very badly to believe that all the terrible things I heard about the USSR was Western imperialist propaganda. Then I went to college and studied Soviet history, and, yup, just as full of atrocity and horror as they’d said, if not more so because the West rarely knew the full extent of the horror. But I remain sympathetic to the goal of radically transforming society to make life better for exploited people, and the classical-tragedy scope of the horrific consequences of that effort.
All of that is just crammed into my brain, percolating away, and it pops up from time to time in my fiction - my story “Black as the Sea,” published in Arts & Letters in 2011, is about the Odessa Pogrom as seen by a child Isaak Babel; I wrote a whole novel nobody wanted, where instead of a Space Race the USSR and the USA fight a Robot Race, which the Soviets win, which leads to America’s collapse and Russia’s rise to unchallenged global supremacy.
But honestly, the root of this story is much more mundane. I was at Clarion, my head exploding every five minutes with awesome new insights and inspiration from my classmates and teachers, and I was out for a run with my headphones on - I firmly believe the universe sends me important messages all the time via the Shuffle function on my music player - and one of my favorite songs came on - “Abel,” by the National. It’s about the acute pain of living on after you’ve lost the person who made you want to be a better person. That’s Nikolai’s tragedy - Apolek was his hero, his inspiration; Apolek helped him see how full of anger and hate and ignorance he still was, how far he had to go, and he came to depend upon him help getting there. But what do you do when that person is gone? The whole story bloomed around that before I was finished with my run.
RN: Later in the story, we have this description of the use of the “Pavlov boxes” which is one of the central SFnal concepts of the story:
“‘Even now, they’re building tens of thousands of Boxes, all over the country. Putting boys of all ages into them. Trying millions of different reconditioning regimens. Creating all kinds of monsters. All kinds of terrifying offshoots. Volkov thinks he can fix it with more reconditioning, so whenever it starts to happen to one of his men, he throws them back into a Box for several days. It makes the symptoms go away, but only for a very little while, and then they come back much worse.’”
‘Okay,’ I said, because I didn’t know what to do or think or say. It had never occurred to me to doubt the Boxes, or reconditioning, or the whole grand Soviet plan of human perfectibility.”
What I love about this passage is the way it illustrates so fundamentally Delany’s conceptualization of what set SF apart linguistically from other fiction. As Delaney argues, it is only in SF (I am paraphrasing) that the sentence “Her world exploded” can be taken as having either a literal or a metaphysical / psychological meaning (or, I would argue, both).
One of the many things I love about “The Beasts We Want to Be” is the way it literalizes, with the Pavlov boxes (a wonderful play on Skinner boxes, by the way) the Soviet effort to “remake” Homo sapiens into Homo sovieticus – and the often (always?) monstrous results of that effort. It uses physical science as a metaphor for what was essentially a mass psychological / sociological experiment reinforced by terror. Can you speak a bit to what kinds of possibilities this literalization sets up for you as an author?
SJM: Mostly, it’s just fun. That’s what I love about writing science fiction - you can put a whole lot of crazy shit on the page, and have fun with it, and hopefully readers will have fun too.
I mean, that very particular kind of fun that involves dissecting historical atrocities.
Maybe fun’s not the right word.
As for this fundamental Soviet question of whether human nature can be re-shaped, I am really caught between (a) wanting very badly to believe that human nature as we now know it is a conditioned response to history’s brutality, and that we can do better, that we are doing better, that struggle and hard work and activism are steadily broadening the scope of our humanity, that it’s possible to learn to co-exist with nature and not mercilessly exploit it, we’re not existentially fucked, and (b) knowing from the study of history that the idea of humanity needing improvement/radical abrupt transformation is a dangerous one that was marshalled by many repressive regimes on the far right and far left.
So this story, and the Pavlov Boxes, is one of many of my attempts to grapple those two conflicting beliefs/knowledges.
RN: Another description of the operation of the Pavlov boxes that I thought was very powerful was this one:
“No two men emerged the same from any one reconditioning regimen. People were too complex. Their own experiences conditioned them to respond to stimuli so differently.”
This reminds me of a basic precept of general systems theory: the individual is not passive, not a blank slate – the individual extracts message from noise and responds according to their own system’s internal organization. Because the internal organization of two individuals will never be alike – because, fundamentally, every individual is a distinct, non-repeatable system, an arrangement of elements and experience constructed in reinforcing feedback loops -- their reaction to input is not predictable.
This is fundamentally what sets general systems theory up against the behaviorist / Pavlovian stimulus / response models that prevailed at that time both in the Soviet Union and in the United States, and that persist in psychological and sociological models of human minds and human culture. And this idea of the unique cognitive system of every individual seems key to understanding the story.
Can you tell me a bit more about how you view the dialectic of individual vs. state here? And perhaps how you view the relationship between individual and societal pressures, more broadly?
SJM: Jeez, Ray. These questions are intense! But good intense.
I think that all interventions aside, from the State and from society, we’re all bizarre unique deranged animals alone in the void with our wild savage selves.
And! Also! we’re inextricably tied to others and the earth, bound in a billion different ways by history, DNA, karma, nation, neighborhood (that’s why I have the line “Our lives are not our own” from Cloud Atlas tattooed on my arm). We can no more exist in isolation from nature and from each other than we can exist in isolation from oxygen.
Who we are is malleable, shaped by nature, nurture, the state, pop culture. Our friends. Our enemies. Great art. But how we respond to those things is also shaped by… those things.
Which is why the reason somebody gives a book a one-star review on Goodreads is the exact same reason somebody else will give it a five-star review.
I don’t have good answers. Attempts by the state to re-shape humanity will have limited success, I think. But attempts by humanity to re-shape the state can succeed, and have in the past, and must in the future.
RN: You’re right. I guess I often feel like interview questions are a bit boilerplate, so if there’s a trademark to this Better Dreaming series, it must be the fact that I love intense conversation and am looking for a way to bring that to the page. I want to really draw out, to the fullest extent I can, your thought process. Thank you for engaging with me.
What you say at the end of your response above is a good place to return to: the idea of how malleable the individual is, how contingent. I’ve said elsewhere that I believe the individual, in the “Cartesian” sense, is a sham. One reason for this is because what we call the “individual” is embedded in what I have come to call “place-time” -- a time and a physical space – but also a constructed, ideological space -- which both constrains and allows action. This combination of time, place, and culture is what constructs our “reality.”
Lived reality’s structures are built up of ideology and traditions. These structures may not be physical, in the strictest sense, but they are real. They are actualities. They don’t go away even when we, as individuals, stop believing in them. They largely define the niche we exist in, a world created by the accretions of human culture. Charles Sanders Peirce puts it perfectly: “A court may issue injunctions and judgements against me and I care not a snap of my fingers for them, I may think them idle vapour. But when I feel the sheriff’s hand on my shoulder, I shall begin to have a sense of actuality.”
And that, to me, is at the core of “place-time” -- I can cease to believe in the values of capitalism, but it remains the driving force of our present economic realities. I can deny the importance of nation-states, but they will continue to exert influence on the fate of billions. I can claim that racism doesn’t exist in the United States, or that I am not a racist, but racism will still be a powerful, structuring force in our history and present society—a force that has shaped me and every other person who lives in this place-time. I cannot escape my position in place-time’s mesh. I am “of” the world in which I exist, though I can push against it.
One of the problems your story appears to address is what I consider one of the central tragedies of Soviet (and not only Soviet, but all) history: The actions people take are largely driven by the force of history and the way that force, often expressed through the state, corrupts and twists individuality. But revenge, and justice, are meted out at the level of the individual: Zinaida kills Apolek because he killed her husband. But did he? Was he responsible for that action? Or was it the state that was responsible? Or some combination of the two?
Likewise, the choice this inspires in Nikolai is an individual one. But in his case, the choice has consequences both at the level of the state and at the level of the lives of tens of thousands of individual people. And so I’ll ask you a question I’ve asked multiple authors in this series: to what degree do you believe human beings are free? You say above that “attempts by humanity to re-shape the state can succeed, and have in the past, and must in the future.” What, in your opinion, has driven that change? This is something M.L. Clark and I discussed at some length, but I feel it’s fundamental, so I’d love to get your take.
I don’t talk about this much because it’s easy to come across as a moody teenager or someone who just discovered A Philosophy Book, but I embrace and celebrate the idea that humans do not have free will.
Every decision we make, from what flavor ice cream cone to get to whether or not we have kids, get married, etc., is conditioned by tens of thousands of factors we can’t control. The beliefs and habits our parents and teachers and heroes and favorite movies instilled in us. Legacies of oppression. Quirks of history. Bizarre genetics we barely understand (there’s actually a gene for whether broccoli tastes bitter or not!).
So I don’t think we “make decisions” so much as we obey who we are. We’re not computers, but we’ve been programmed. Even when we stop and say “wait, why am I making this decision, I always get chocolate ice cream, can I choose otherwise, let me get pistachio,” that is itself a piece of programming, a contrarian subroutine or an algorithm of attempting to assert free will.
As for what’s driven successful attempts to re-shape society, I’d say - activism. Coordinated, sustained organizing that brings together different communities impacted by a problem to fight through a multitude of strategies (direct action! civil disobedience! calls to elected officials! a billion boring but crucial meetings!) to shift the conversation to the point where previously-impossible solutions are inevitable. And that includes great storytelling - replacing an old and toxic narrative (“Human beings can be property; it’s in the Bible” or “Of course children should work in factories”) with a new and better one.
After fifteen years as a community organizer I did lose something crucial, which is part of why I got of the way of the younger radder activists and organizers coming up.
RN: We could go on and on about all of this, and so many other elements packed into the story, but I think this is a good concept to wind up with: the idea that it is not reliance on the free will of individual, or despair at the lack thereof, that we should concentrate on – but rather, collective action. I like that idea of bringing together communities, and especially the communities directly impacted by the problem. That’s a great quote above, “. . . to shift the conversation to the point where previously-impossible solutions are inevitable.” If there is a positive trajectory to history (and I think that remains to be seen) it must be that one – the idea that we can move, collectively, to a tipping point where previously impossible solutions become inevitable.
Thank you so much, Sam, for taking the time to talk to me about your work.
SM: Thanks for having me, Ray!! It's not every day I get to say stuff like "an algorithm of attempting to assert free will." And it was great to get to talk about "The Beasts We Want To Be" with you - I'm fond of that story, even if it feels like a very different writer wrote it, almost ten years ago now! Here's to the hope we can drink coffee and talk fiction and free will in real life someday soon.